American Debate Sediment 1: Student Judging

There are several issues standing in the way of the creation of an American national circuit of WUDC debating. All of them are quite serious issues, and they are going to take a generation to fix.

Fix? Not really the right word. Brush away, clear away, something like that. For these are best considered a sediment on top of American debating; a sediment left there by decades of debate practice influenced by a positivist view of language within a legalistic, punitive system of rules.

The sediment is thick. The metaphor here is not dusting, but more nautical archaeology. Nautical archaeology of ancient Greece or something. It's a lot of sticky mud. And pulling it off too quickly threatens the treasure below. There is a high risk the patient will reject the new organ of WUDC style debate that is being slowly transplanted across the country.

This is the first of a few posts about these concerns. They are in no particular order.

Student Judges


Debate's history in the United States has always been a faculty directed program. There was a brief period of time in the history of Colonial Colleges that debate teams were student run, at the dawn of tournament debating. The rise of the Speech Communication department along with the G.I. bill ended that, but it still remains as a relic only at the most elite of American Universities (the most persuasive theory being that elites who attend elite schools do not need any directed or professional speech instruction; people will simply believe them based on class, wealth, power, or simply networking with friends of dad solves the need to be persuasive. Also the name on the degree doesn't hurt).

This sediment has led to some very comfortable rules. Judges are all graduates, done debating. They are responsible employees of the University. They are to speak as a teacher, or perhaps an expert. They judge the debate based on expert opinion on debating.

Worlds Style debate has no such system or luxury. The development of the consensus system is a judge training system built into the format. It also serves as a simulated public - a very different idea than the judge as "debating expert." There are no experts in Worlds debate; there are simulated publics, there are "reasonable persons" judging each debate. Breaking judges are selected, in theory, based on the most attentive and responsible of the judges at the tournament.

I don't know where or if the fear is a motive here. But one huge assumption is that debating is to be preferred to judging. If a student can debate, they should. Judging comes later. They could unfairly tip the ballance, they might not know enough to make a good decision - and they might not understand the rules of debating well enough to judge it. They might also be bad teachers.

The result of these fears is a comfort that is misplaced, putting one or two judges in a round as long as they know what they are doing. They are comfortable having expert single judges judge a room, which is problematic. All the arguments are directed toward a public ear, not a private expert reviewing the case. There is a shortage of judges because debate directors have to fight the feeling that putting a student in as a judge is a waste. Deliberation solves this, because deliberation forces the students to make and remake the arguments they've heard. They have to repeat them, explain them. They also have to articulate how they clashed with every other team in the round. In short, they have to develop a critical debating mind, and they do it through articulation with and to others. They also have to hear the articulation of others, and reflect on it. They must reflect and speak about the rhetoric of others. This is better debate training than any professor at the chalkboard can provide.

Couching judging as 50% of the experience of being a Worlds debater might help us overcome this. The argument must be made that the pedagogy depends on both. We must use the metaphor of the card, or the cross examination, or research, or something like that to convince those transitioning over or adding to their existing adversarial debate program that student judging is a requirement, not an option.

Everyone benefits from this. The more judges, the more something that was lost can be located in a round. The more the judging students can see how judges work, and how decisions should be made. They gain valuable exposure to a variety of argument in practice. And they learn how to explain why and how it worked for them. Students before judging explain why they were persuaded circularly (i.e. "It's good because it is true, and it's true because it is good"). After making them judge, they are much better at giving reasons why they were moved, instead of just assuming it was truth moving them around.

Many of the older coaching generation will have trouble accepting students flipping from judging to speaking between tournaments. Questions of eligibility and fairness will appear. But in Worlds, no divisions are needed, as we are not learning an expertise-based argumentation style. Natural language argumentation is available everywhere. We just express the warrants with more explicit language (not swearing, ha ha, very funny you) and more direct expose of interactivity. And that might be a good thing. Well, it's good if a reasonable person can understand it and assent to it.

Will a student be a bad teacher? The student is the only teacher available. Teacher, understood as a figure of authority, or someone holding onto a sacred and complex set of disciplinary rules, is not a good understanding. The experience is what teaches in Worlds style debating, not a particular expert judge. The experience of the debate teaches, both in the doing and the decision. Everyone learns from the interaction, and they learn something about how people are moved by words.

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